Adult Beginner here, Got this email the other day from BK, who found the First Class Stories page and got to thinking about his first ballet class, and then got to writing and then wrote some more, and a little more, and some more, and then realized maybe the story was a bit long for the page and sent it to me and I think it’s great so I’m putting it here. Enjoy.
I was a month shy of turning 30 when I walked into my first ballet class 10 years ago. Sort of an early mid-life crisis moment, only I was way too young for a mid-life crisis. More like, “Well, I need to find something that’s really, really different from anything I’ve done before.” It should also be noted that I’m a guy. I had dated a girl in college who was a dancer, and had a few, um, private sessions with her, so I knew some of the lingo already. Beyond that, my ballet experience was zero. Right about that same time I was playing/teaching a sport for a living and figured that ballet would help me in the balance and focus departments. So, I called up a local pre-pro school and got the details on their adult classes…no beginners, just adult, one-size-fits-all -experience classes.
Here is where we take a short detour through the task of obtaining apparel for ballet class. This is easy for a woman, but not so much for a guy.
I ask the woman on the phone at the school what I should wear for class. Her response (which I remember exactly): “Our uniform for male students is a white t-shirt, black full length tights, white socks and black leather ballet slippers.” My response: “Uniform? Oh, um, okay (gulp).” Not quite what I was expecting, as I was thinking the t-shirt and shorts route, maybe slippers, which seemed necessary, but definitely not tights.
Then, she adds in this little nugget of info: “It will be cold in class (this was a Saturday morning class in January) so you’ll want to bring a sweatshirt and legwarmers for barre exercises.”
Me: “Legwarmers?” (more gulping noises)
So I go to a dance apparel store and spend more than I ever intend to on dancewear, not even sure if I’ll make it to a second class. I draw the line at the unitard the store attendant brought out (when I presented her with the list of things I needed I saw dollars signs in her eyes; she was trying to cash in), and also passed on something she called a “dance belt.” Had never heard of that before, and didn’t think it was necessary. Wow, was that a bad call…more on that later.
So I make my way to class very early one Saturday morning, and man, is it cold when I walk into the studio. That lady wasn’t kidding. There’s no one in the waiting room for the studio, and I walk past one classroom that’s dark. No one anywhere. That’s odd, I think. I go into the bathroom and get dressed. At least it’s warmer in there, for some reason. I stop in front of the mirror and catch sight of myself for the first time in full ballet get-up. I’m reasonably fit, and people have told me since that I have great legs and feet for dance, but wow, at that moment I was ready to turn and run out of the studio. Anxiety starts to set in.
I take a deep breath and exit the bathroom. Still no one in the waiting room. No noise coming from anywhere, nothing. It’s almost the time for class, so I’m wondering if I’m in the right place, or if class was cancelled and word never got to me since I’m new. I linger for a moment, wondering what to do.
I look around a corner and down a hallway and see a light on in a back studio, which leads me to believe it’s where class is being held. However, as I walk in that direction, a few things begin to happen simultaneously…1) The middle part of my body becomes aware of just how cold it is. The upper half is fine due to the sweatshirt, and my legs are nice and warm due to the legwarmers (pulled tight over my legs so as to not be noticeable; they’re so long they come over my knees). But the middle part? Where the dance belt would, and should, go under the tights? Nuh uh, not even close, still frigid. I’ll spare the details, but feelings of intense awkwardness and self-consciousness ensue. 2) I enter the studio and become aware of someone else there, over in the far corner that I couldn’t see until I walked in. An older guy, a good 20-30 years my senior, dressed exactly the same as me, sans sweatshirt and legwarmers. He ambles over immediately to shake my hand and greet me, which only makes me even more self-conscious. He explains that his daughters took ballet for years as children, and that he took it up when they stopped. They stopped 20 years ago. Okay. 3) I also become aware that there are no other people in the room, no teacher, no other students, nothing.
With my head spinning a little bit I do some simple warm up exercises at the barre, and make small talk with the other guy, midsection strategically angled away from him. Needless to say, this is a completely alien experience. A couple minutes go by. No one else enters the room. Now I’m thinking “What the hell is going on here? No teacher, only one other person and he’s old enough to be my dad?” Feelings of awkwardness intensify. Then, the teacher enters. She knows the other guy already and greets him, and starts asking me some questions about experience level and says she’ll tailor the class around what we want to do/learn. She’s very no-nonsense. I realize at this point that this is it for the class – two dudes, no women. That doesn’t bother me necessarily, it’s just not quite what I expected. I shrug that off and dive into class.
It doesn’t take long for the warm-up gear to come off and I run through the litany of positions, plies, releves, degages, frappes, rond de jambes, etc. (Note: I find I really enjoy rond de jambes and try to execute them as perfectly as possible). Then there are jumps and basic pirouettes. The other guy almost falls over every time he tries to execute a pirouette. It isn’t pretty, not that I have anything to talk about. “So much for 20 years’ experience”, the nasty side of me thinks. I immediately feel bad for thinking that.
The teacher spends a lot of time with me, making me realize that having only two people in the class wasn’t such a bad thing – I end up paying $10 for practically an individual lesson. Her bedside manner maybe isn’t the best, but I can tell she’s legitimately trying to teach me something. The class goes pretty smoothly, and my comfort level increases dramatically from when I first walked in.
As we wrap up there’s some more small talk, and she talks about the other adult class, on a Wednesday night, if Saturday mornings are too early for me. Then I make a joke about getting comfortable wearing tights (she’s been pretty serious throughout the class and I try naturally to get people to laugh, or at least smile). She gets a slightly confused look on her face and tells me “You know, you don’t have to wear tights in class. In our adult classes, you can wear whatever you’re comfortable in.” I explain what the woman on the phone said about the uniform, and then I get my first smile and laugh of the day. “Oh, that’s just for the boys in our professional school, not the adults.” Ah, okay.
Postscript — I never went back, mostly due to the school being such a long drive away. But a few months later I wander into a different studio one evening, much closer to home. They were overjoyed to see a male student walk in the door. The owner takes one look at my legs and tells me, seriously, that if I want a professional career she’d help me get started. I ended up staying for three years.
There was a core group of 8-10 women in their adult classes, one of whom I ended up dating for awhile. Yeah, didn’t take me too long to get comfortable at this studio. I was cast in their shows, and got to do some moderately complex partnering routines. The older women weren’t quite up to partnering so I usually got paired with some of the advanced high school girls at the studio. Those were awkward at first since I was a good 14-15 years older than they were, but as everyone got comfortable I ended up looking forward to staying after class for an hour working on routines. I got an actual dance belt (not really comfortable, but necessary), and got completely used to wearing tights. One class I wore shorts, and felt totally out of place the entire time. That’s when I knew I was completely “in” this.
And oh yeah, I even went on pointe! That was crazy. Just for one class, on a dare, 30 minutes at the barre. A couple of the advanced girls wanted to see a guy en pointe, and the studio owner said it might be good to feel what my partners felt. I couldn’t walk right the next two days. So much for feeling anything. My special-ordered size 11 black Sanshas were quickly retired.
Eventually I fell off the ballet wagon as other parts of my life called. No professional career for me, not even close. The classmate I was dating decided to go back to school and had to move so we called it off. Not that painful really, but it caused me to look forward to class a little bit less. My schedule filled up, and ballet didn’t make the cut. In the seven years since, I’ve taken just a handful of classes, maybe five total. I wandered into one last summer in the city where I recently moved and felt completely lost since it had been so long.
I’m married now, and get this, my wife used to work in the office of the same pre-pro school where I took my first class. For real. (Ok, yeah, apparently I have a thing for dancers, so sue me.) That was quite an interesting conversation on the first date….”Wait, you worked where?” “Wait, you take ballet?” Once she saw my legs though, it all made sense to her.
But I still think about my days as a danseur from time to time, when I took the plunge on something completely different and it paid off with an experience that taught me a lot – discipline, focus, balance, really just a chance to see the world through a completely different viewpoint. It was challenging, frustrating, and fun. Although I’m somewhat relieved I no longer have to memorize combinations and toss 110-pound girls over my head (hello, back problems!), I still manage to get the urge to trace a rond de jambe from time to time.
When I walked into that studio on that freezing January morning and laughed at myself in the mirror and wanted to just leave, I never would have thought part of me would one day miss ballet. Funny how that all works out.